Written by ParentTV expert Dr Jodie Lowinger, via Parent TV.
10-20 percent of school-aged children experience anxiety. Anxiety can make children miss out on school, social activities and sleep. As a parent, it can be frustrating to watch your child suffer and you may often feel overcome with a feeling of helplessness. It is difficult to watch your child become anxious over situations that do not seem that scary. The reality is that in the mind of your child, these situations are genuinely threatening. Even perceived threats can trigger the real nervous system response known as anxiety.
Children’s brains continually shape themselves to their environment, especially in childhood. Children need adults to help them understand and regulate their emotions. Parents have a profound influence over how their children experience anxiety and helping them develop healthy coping skills.
There is no miracle cure for childhood anxiety or a one-size fits all solution for how to parent an anxious child. There are, however, many strategies for parenting an anxious child that have been proven to be effective.
1. STOP REASSURING YOUR CHILD
Most of us respond to our child’s concerns with reassurance and rationalisation. We say ‘Don’t worry about it’ and ‘Trust me’. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Even though our children want to listen to us, their brains won’t let it happen. This is because the physical component of anxiety involves a lot of chemicals in the brain related to the ‘fight or flight’ response. The more rational, logical part of the brain takes a back seat as the emotional brain takes over. As a result it is difficult for your child to accept your reassurance. Rather than trying to reason with your child that there is nothing to worry about it can be more effective to help them disengage from the fight or flight response.
Before trying to rationalise, get your child to disengage from the physical aspects of anxiety by taking deep breaths, slowly in and out. Once your child has calmed down first empathise with them and show them that you understand their worries. Only after they are calm and you have acknowledged their anxiety can you begin to engage them in more logical problem-solving.
2. HELP THEM UNDERSTAND THAT WORRYING HAS A PURPOSE
Many children with anxiety feel as though there is something wrong with them. Helping them understand that anxiety serves as a protection mechanism can help them feel better about their anxiety. Ensure that they know that our ancestors evolved in a hunting and gathering environment where there was a lot more danger to worry about. Today there are typically fewer threats but anxiety is perfectly normal and everyone experiences it from time to time. Studies have even demonstrated that anxious people are great problem solvers.
3. SET REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
Do not promise your child that what they fear will not happen (unless it’s something you are 100 percent sure about, like a monster hiding under the bed). Instead, let them know that even if what they fear does happen you are confident that they can handle it.
4. LET YOUR CHILD WORRY
Telling your child not to worry is most often futile. They cannot simply turn off their anxiety. Sometimes it is wise to let them worry at intervals of 10 to 15 minutes. By setting aside time each day where they are allowed to worry it can help them delay worrying during other times of day, such as while at school or during an activity. If your child is old enough to write this can be a good time to encourage them to journal their worry thoughts.
5. AVOID AVOIDANCE
The flight component of the fight or flight response naturally drives us away from any situation that causes anxiety. As a parent, it is important not to feed this flight response and reinforce your child’s anxiety. While this may ease anxiety in the short term, giving into avoidance will only worsen anxiety in the long term.
6. HELP THEM CONFRONT THEIR ANXIETY
By helping your child confront their anxiety you can help them dismantle the power it holds over them. This does not mean they have to face their anxiety in its entirety, it can be broken into smaller mini goals and exposure in smaller doses. Anxiety will naturally decrease within 20-45 minutes if you allow your child to stay in an anxiety-provoking situation.
It is important to keep the anticipatory period as short as possible. When your child is afraid of something it is the period leading up to the situation the is the most difficult. For example, if your child is afraid of the dentist don’t tell them they have an appointment coming up weeks in advance. Do not discuss it until closer to the event.
When your child does face his or her fears be sure to reward them with praise or something like a small treat or a sticker.
7. TEACH YOUR CHILD ANXIETY AWARENESS
Sometimes an anxious mind will blow things out of proportion to bring them to our attention. After all, anxiety is designed to protect us from harm. A typical response is to tell our children to ‘think positive’. A more effective strategy is to teach them to think accurately and ensure their perceptions are in proportion to the actual threats.
Teach your child to look at the facts rather than their feelings about situations and challenge their thoughts.
8. MIND YOUR OWN ANXIETY
It is stressful to be the parent of an anxious child. Sometimes parents even become anxious about their child’s anxiety! Our own anxiety can in turn make our child become more anxious.
Aim to be a ‘non-anxious presence’ in your child’s world. While this may not be possible 100 percent of the time, doing so will help counter and diffuse your child’s anxiety. Many of our children’s coping skills are borrowed from us, so it is important to model healthy coping skills.
9. SLEEP, EXERCISE AND DIET
As parents we play a special role in promoting the wellbeing of our children. We choose what they eat, how much activity they have and even influence their sleep. If you child suffers from anxiety it is particularly important to pay attention to factors such as sleep, exercise and diet.
Research has demonstrated the benefits of sleep with respect to emotional regulation and a lack of it increases the risk of anxiety. Facilitating your child’s sleep with a consistent bedtime routine can help them be at their best.
Exercise is an excellent way to minimise anxiety. Anxiety is a very physical state and exercise can help get kids out of the physical state of anxiety as well as give them a mental boost.
10. BE PERSISTENT
The battle against anxiety and stress can be challenging and the strategies you use may not have immediate results. By repeating these strategies and techniques your child is much more likely to learn how to manage his or her anxiety levels and cope with situations that trigger their anxiety.
While these tips can be helpful for parenting an anxious child, they may not apply to every anxious child. The most important thing of all you can do as a parent is show your child unconditional love and demonstrate care and compassion. Don’t forget to show yourself compassion too. It is challenging to be the parent of an anxious child.